News and analysis
February 18, 2011

Ford Foundation Conference Sheds Light on Internet Freedom

The Ford Foundation is making an aggressive effort to sell the philanthropy world on the idea that the Internet is not just an accessory to help push social change but also an integral part of enacting that change.

But in a month that saw Internet access shut off in Egypt and the fight over Internet access in the United States intensify, philanthropy may have to focus more energy on making sure the Internet remains free and open.

The foundation this week played host to a daylong conference called Wired for Change, an event that put together an A-list of social-change makers and celebrities.

More than 200 leaders gathered for the event, which included an address by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, a surprise appearance by former President Bill Clinton, and lunch with the filmmaker Spike Lee.

Ford used the event as an opportunity to highlight organizations such as, an online community that tries to amplify black voices in American politics, and Global Voices, an international community of bloggers who write about social discourse and unrest in the far reaches of the world that are not covered thoroughly by the mainstream press. In doing so, the foundation hoped the event would spur other grant makers to spend more money on creating organizations that fully integrate Internet technology into human-rights work.

When used strategically, the conference emphasized, the Internet could be used as a tool for good, much like television was during the American civil-rights movement.

Repeatedly, those on the dais offered examples of how Facebook and YouTube have played a role in organizing the protests in the Middle East that led to the fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt–and in the key role that they can play in giving voice to those who do not have access to traditional media.

But it was another development in Egypt–the government’s decision to block its citizens' Internet access for five days starting on Jan. 28–along with an ugly fight in Congress over who controls Internet access in the United States that set a backdrop of concern.

Even as Ford was trying to use the conference to help grant makers recognize the Internet's power, many attendees said they feared that the full power of the Internet may be negated before it is fully realized.

“I think of it as death by 1,000 cuts,” said Brett Solomon, who runs Access, an organization that helps those in countries who are subject to censorship maintain Internet access. “Either people have been wall blocked by corporations or censored by governments, and suddenly that open space that was available is no longer there.”

At the conference, Mr. Solomon and two colleagues demonstrated how hackers helped activists in Egypt circumvent their government’s attempts at creating a media blackout. Still, he and others are concerned that governments in other countries will use malware to limit the ability of dissenters to communicate online.

Egypt’s move flamed fears that other countries–including the United States–could possibly do the same in a moment of crisis. In fact, the number of countries that censor what their citizens can view online has grown since 2002 from two–China and Saudi Arabia–to more than four dozen, according to John Palfrey, a researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.

The looming threat could be in the United States.

But the conference highlighted the idea that nonprofits will likely play a key role in keeping the Internet accessible and free from censorship.

Gigi Sohn, a co-founder of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that lobbies for net neutrality, said in an interview that nonprofits must be leaders in this effort since many large companies and the government have their own agendas. Her group employs a lobbyist, five lawyers, and several outreach officers to fight for net neutrality in both Congress and on the street.

“This is about whether the Internet is going to be the great engine of creativity and free speech and economic opportunity or whether it will be like a cable system, where the owners of the pipe control what shows you get at what tier and what channels they get at what speed," she said. "It allows the owners of the Internet-access companies to pick winners and losers."

Internet accessibility and freedom have become a focus for Ford, which has pledged $50-million over the next five years to help provide broadband Internet access to all Americans and to protect public-interest values online.

Net neutrality is a small part of that expenditure. But as Ford tried to help push more money into creating more effective online advocacy tools, others wondered if the funding community should pay more attention to protecting the Internet itself.

“We use the Internet and mobile technology to build society, and we take it for granted that the open Internet will always be in place,” Mr. Solomon said. “It is important for funders to see how they can support both organizations that are working toward keeping it open.”